Is Africa Rising or Reeling?

This is from Amadou Sy, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings.

Whether described as “Hopeless,” “Rising,” or “Reeling,” no one can deny that African countries have made substantial gains.  In a recent piece, I argue that “missed in the binary of a hopeless versus a rosy narrative are large disparities among countries in terms of political and economic governance.” So many countries are quickly rising to the top. Countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia (in spite of the regrettable recent internal violence), Kenya (it is ironic that his article is a “Memo from Nairobi”), and Senegal are expected to grow at more than 5 percent this year (IMF, 2016). Yes, not surprisingly, oil exporters will continue to suffer from the lack of diversification of their sources of revenues, and South Africa—a middle-income country—is struggling from self-inflicted wounds.  But even within these countries, some regions and sectors will fare better than others.

Africans are past the debate of whether their countries are hopeless, rising, or reeling. What they want to see is resilient, sustainable, and inclusive growth, and the debate they are interested in is about the actual policies that will generate such outcomes. That is why young Burkinabe, following the example of youth in Senegal, took to the street in Ouagadougou two years ago to stop and reverse attacks against democracy. That is what many Congolese in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are fighting for right now.

Change is inherently destabilizing. So it is kind of amazing that in light of recent hiccups in political and economic development across Africa most analysts have opted to completely ignore the gains that African states have made over the last 25 years. Instead, many have run back to the old tried and tested narrative of a reeling continent plagued by political instability and economic catastrophes.

screen-shot-2016-10-21-at-10-50-20-amTake the example of Ethiopia. You essentially have a country that for a couple of decades has tried a formula of faux ethnic federalism under the domination of the TPLF, the formateur of the EPRDF constellation (see works by my colleague Lahra Smith here and here). For a long time this institutional innovation allowed for a reasonable amount of political stability (remember that Ethiopia was an empire of different peoples for centuries); on the back of which the country has registered pretty impressive economic gains (see here for another perspective). But now those gains have made the initial institutional innovation untenable. Ethiopians are demanding for greater voice for non-TPLF factions. Remember that the key trigger of the recent Oromo Protests was the encroachment on Oromo lands by a rapidly expanding Addis Ababa. Economic development (and the inequalities it has produced) is partially responsible for lowering the perceived costs of political organization in an attempt to revise the rules governing the initial post-Derg political settlement.

The state has pushed back violently against these revisionist political movements, particularly in the Oromo region (see image). A recent state of emergency takes away any pretense of proportionality, meaning Ethiopia is headed for greater shrinkage of political space.

Writing in 2003 Alem Habtu presciently observed that:

Ethnic federalism institutionalized ethnic groups as fundamental constituents of the state. It established them as social categories sharply distinct from the overarching category of citizenship. Many citizens are worried that it might lead to the demise of the state altogether. Thus far, there is no evidence that new ethnic nationalisms have emerged in Ethiopia as a consequence of ethnic federalism, as they did in the former USSR. But it is too early to entirely dismiss their emergence.

…… EPRDF has been undergoing an organizational-cum-ideological crisis since 2001. In a series of party meetings in June 2001, OPDO and SEDPF as well as the five allied regional parties, complained publicly of TPLF/EPRDF “tutelage.” Its crisis was manifested in its employment of Leninist organizational practices while adopting pluralist principles. It may face a great challenge in sustaining the ethnic federal project unless it undergoes ideological and organizational changes. Only time will tell whether it can do so without severely undermining the integrity and political management of the federal structure. If the federal state were to be in grave danger or collapse, the military may once again seize power. But if the latter fractures along ethnic lines, we could witness a Yugoslavia-like scenario. Inasmuch as EPRDF is a coalition, it is different from the Communist party of the USSR or Yugoslavia. The viability and stability of the infant political system is dependent on its flexibility and adaptability [emphasis mine]. Contingent events will shape the outcome of the ethnic federal experiment. In any case, the experiment is politically fragile.

On balance, it would be inaccurate to claim that Ethiopia is in decline. There are countless stories documenting very concrete gains in the country over the last two decades. Several state-owned enterprises are getting things done, with some — like Ethiopian Airlines — outcompeting their private competitors in the region. The narrative of general decline therefore betrays a singular misconception of how political development works. Did anyone really expect the process of reckoning with the failures of the institutions of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia to be smooth?

Serious students of Ethiopia (and of political development in general) certainly did not.

My own assessment is that this episode will be more of a Tiananmen Square moment for the Ethiopian state, as opposed to what happened in the USSR or Yugoslavia. I hope I am not wrong.


Ethiopian rules Africa’s skies

What can the international community do? Well, now is the time to make it clear to the Ethiopian government that basic respect for human rights will not always be sacrificed on the altar of economic growth. The TPLF leadership must be made to understand that for stability to obtain they must allow for some dispersal of power. They must be reminded of the fact that China’s rise was actually accompanied by significant openings on both the political and economic fronts. Nobody wants to go back to the suffocating and rudderless tin top dictatorship of the Derg.

I’ve always considered binary analyses of a continent of 55 countries as evidence of intellectual laziness. These analyses are nothing but a repackaging of 18th century views of the Continent as a place full of simple peoples, who live simple lives, that can be packaged into simple narratives. As I have tried to show with the Ethiopian case, what is happening in the country is complicated. And it is silly to try and project this onto the rest of the Continent.

All this to say that I agree with Sy. Read the whole thing here.

Who runs the world?

May be it is just because my adviser at some point studied the politics of language and identity (see here and here), but this morning over breakfast as I was watching the newly elected appointed successor of Hu Jintao as president of China give his inaugural speech to the press I was reminded of the continued soft (and hard) power of the English speaking North Atlantic world – or just simply the US.

In my opinion, it says a lot that the Chinese authorities felt the need to have a translator in the room, and for Mr. Xi Jinping to wait after every paragraph or so for the English translation to go through (they may have had translations to other languages as well, I was watching it live on the BBC).

Imagine the day when a newly elected US president, standing on the steps of the Capitol, gives a speech in English but has to wait every now and then for a Mandarin Chinese translation to go through.

I may be making too much of this. It all might have been a deliberate attempt to engage the rest of the world. As Time reports, Mr. Xi urged the press to facilitate more exchanges between China and the rest of the world:

But most of all, Xi was in a celebratory mood, advising the gathered press to do their part in furthering cross-cultural awareness. “Friends from the press, just as China needs to learn more about the world, so does the world need to learn more about China,” he said in a jocular tone. “I hope you will continue your efforts to deepen mutual understanding between China and the world.”

Language is very central to human interactions, and whoever has power over language usually has a lot of sway (as is argued in the books above). This morning someone won the politics of language. And it was not Beijing.